It's a half-hour before game time on a Sunday afternoon in Bradenton, Florida. Larry Andersen has just finished going through piles of notes — "big-league prep," he likes to call it — as he gets set to join his friend and partner, Scott Franzke, on his last radio broadcast of spring training. The weather is gorgeous and Andersen steps out of the press box to soak up a little sun. He wants to do more of that this season because he loves the game, the Phillies, the city and, most of all, the fans. The most difficult winter of his life is over. He enters Thursday's season opener — his 22nd as part of the Phillies broadcast team — with a new, brighter perspective on everything.
"But don't you worry," Andersen says as he begins to tell his story. "I'm still going to get on umpires."
While most of us spent the winter with a raging case of Harper-mania, Andersen was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. The doctors didn't like what they were seeing in October. The diagnosis confirmed an aggressive form of cancer in November. He had surgery in December and passed the three-month mark during spring training.
"They tell me I'm cancer-free now," he says, a look of relief sweeping over his face.
He talks of all the people who helped him get through the ordeal, people like Vince Nauss and Jeff Boettcher, his friends from Baseball Chapel, he talks about becoming a Christian in 1980 and how his faith has grown since then, how it carried him through the winter. He talks about the love and support of his wife, Kristi, and his baseball and broadcasting friends, like Franzke. He talks about his children, Angie, Tania and Chase, all adults spread out around the country.
"The hardest thing for me was not having them hear my voice crack when I told them," he says.
Larry Andersen first encountered mortality on March 10, 1967. He still remembers his sister, Linda, coming into his bedroom and saying, "Dad's been in an accident." Dale Andersen was a pilot for a small, West Coast commuter airline. His plane crashed shortly after takeoff in a blinding snowstorm. He was just 38. Larry was just 13 when he lost his best pal and backyard bullpen catcher.
Larry went on to become a seventh-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians and pitched 17 seasons in the majors, six with the Phillies. He was a member of two Phillies World Series teams and has gained huge post-playing career popularity for his work in the broadcast booth and his familial connection with fans. He loves to share a laugh with them, maybe even a cold one if you catch him around town. And he loves to share his honest opinions about the game to which he has dedicated his life with them.
"No one has ever wanted this team to win more than me, maybe as much, but never more," Andersen says. "The reason I want this team to win so badly is because of the fans and I've said that forever. Some people might say you're pandering to the fans. I'm not. These fans have been so good to me. I can't put into words what the fans have shown me over the last 25 years in Philly."
Andersen is still standing high above home plate, soaking up the sun, watching Phillies players stretch on the field down below.
He says fans approach him often and thank him for "keeping it real," as the saying goes.
He shrugs pensively and offers that maybe there are times when he keeps it a little too real for some people's liking. He wouldn't say who those folks are.
"I would hope people can separate negativity from honesty," he says.
The game is changing. All sports are changing. Science and analytics and big data have taken their place at the table next to human experience and instinct. In some cases, the former has elbowed the latter from the table and maybe out of the game. Where once old-school baseball men would predict a pitcher like Nick Pivetta is ready for a breakout season because he now has experience to go with a great arm and talent, new-school baseball men predict the same thing by using new-age statistics like fielding-independent pitching, or FIP.
Andersen came up in a time when baseball people kept it real. Once upon a time not long ago, a Phillies general manager talked of releasing a player because "he has a hole in his bat." That probably would never happen in today's game, where a premium is kept on keeping the environment ultra-positive. There is really no right or wrong answer in all of this. Times change. Methods change.
A cancer scare at age 65 with a lot of life still to live can make Larry Andersen change.
"This thing has done a lot for my faith," he says. "I look at it and trust this is the Lord's plan. This is another way of saying, 'Get your act together, you're not going to be on this Earth forever.'
"It's also helped me from the perspective of stop worrying about stuff that's out of your control, stuff that's trivial. Don't let stuff bother me so much. I look back to my broadcasting, to last year. I know I was critical of the team. I was critical of a lot of things that I didn't agree with and Scott Franzke, my partner over 10 years, at the end of the season gave me some great advice. He said if you disagree with something, just disagree without anger.
"I'd see our young pitchers be compared to (Justin) Verlander and (Zack) Greinke because of their FIP and I didn't think it was fair to our pitchers or the fans. Those guys are Cy Young winners and our young guys hadn't even won 20 games in their careers because they hadn't been in the big leagues long enough. Those comparisons bothered me so much and I would try to give my side and it would come out with anger because I'm passionate and I care about winning. But with all of this other stuff happening, I was able to look back and say, 'Why? Why am I letting it bother me so much?'"
So, will Phillies fans be getting a watered-down Larry Andersen this season?
"I'll still be critical," he vows. "But I'm not going to be upset.
"I'll always be honest. You can snow people in San Diego, in Seattle, other places. You can't do that in Philly. You just can't BS the fans in Philly. They're too smart.
"When they're sitting at home and want to pick up a shoe and throw it at the TV, I know what they're feeling. I'm a fan, too. I know I work for the organization, but I'm a fan. And that's where I think I have a rapport with them. They feel frustration in my voice when they're frustrated watching.
"The last few years have been frustrating. It's been hard. But I really like this team. I love what they've done in the offseason. I'm ready to turn the corner and I think the fans are, too."
Opening day is Thursday. Regardless of what the weatherman says, there's sun in Larry Andersen's forecast.
"I'm going to look at things with brighter eyes," he said.
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